The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds

Extreme adventure that reads like unimaginable fiction (Washington, Inside Passage and Arctic Alaska, Canadian Territories; six months 2012): If a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the video Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell shot during their six-month, mind-boggling expedition covering 4,000 miles of stunning and death-defying landscapes in the northernmost reaches of North America – the subject of this thrilling and beautifully written memoir:

If you cannot imagine adventuring through the Inside Passage of southern Alaska to the Arctic Circle, and doing so entirely with your own “muscles” (travel by an “expedition-style rowboat” Pat built, an inflatable packraft, skis, hiking), in some of the most “bear-dense landscapes on earth” (no gun, just bear spray), amidst “hurricane-force winds,” avalanche dangers, glaciers, snow-covered boulders, mud like quicksand, in temperatures that plunged as low as negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit, across remote backcountry few (if any) humans live, then reading The Sun is a Compass is like watching a National Geographic Special with eye-popping wows.

You’ll also find yourself thinking, like the author writes in her planning notes, “Is this crazy?” The answer is an unequivocal yes; this wild journey undertaken in 2012 was CRAZY! Maybe not quite that absolute for a couple cognizant that “wilderness has become the silent partner in our marriage.”

The author has a way with words that brings awesome wilderness to our doorsteps. Coupled with amazing courage, endurance, persistence, and risk-taking, this is an amazing story of recognizing “certain things in life don’t offer second chances.”

How two extreme adventurers achieved what they’d set out to do (with four months of planning that wasn’t enough), prepared for, experienced, and survived is the stuff of legends. In fact, I googled to see if they’d received any kind of explorer award, surprised not to find any. The memoir should attract wide attention to compensate for that, though it seems highly unlikely these adventurers care much about that. They are the real deal.

Honestly, I don’t know which aspect of their journey stands out the most. I’ll mention some, let you decide.

The author, who submitted her doctoral thesis the night before they set off, is a wildlife biologist specializing in ornithology. Surely her knowledge enriched what the couple saw and felt. Being able to identify a long list of birds acclimated to frigid climates and birds in the midst of the miracle of migration – birds with “remarkable feats of memory and problem-solving” – added immeasurably. So many birds, which you’ll find listed in a detailed index. Warblers, godwits, chickadees, kittiwakes, trogons, gulls, goshawks, guillemots, gyrfalcons, plovers, tussocks, and many more. Enough to satisfy a birder’s life list! But the purpose of spotting them and telling us a little about them is meant to highlight moments “filled with “wonder.” The bird image that sticks with me is the time they came upon a single “trumpeter swan taking a bath” in a glacial lake at five thousand foot elevation.

Seeing these birds in their natural habitats brought the author closer to the field work she’s passionate about, not the academic research she’s dispassionate about – one reason among several this journey was so important to her.

Van Hemert was thirty-three when she and her husband made this expedition, a fork-in-the-road time in their personal and professional lives, expecting it would clarify decision-making especially for the author who “needed a crash course outdoors to remind myself that life is not merely a tally of days, that what really matters cannot be quantified.”

Pat’s path, on the other hand, seemed somewhat determined. A builder of things, he ended up founding an Alaskan company that custom-designs homes for unforgiving climates. The author, who tends to worry compared to her unusually optimistic husband, currently works at the US Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska after much soul-searching.

Van Hemert tells her story when she was at a vulnerable stage in life, unsure of her career direction and motherhood (her sister gave birth shortly after the expedition began), concerned, rightfully so, as to how a child would fit into/constrain extreme adventuring. But family is precious to her; she poignantly stresses about her active father’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The trip may be off-the-charts unknowable to most of us, but the personal conflicts and worries are awfully familiar.

While Pat’s arrival in Alaska came via upstate New York (he content to “live in the woods”), the author was raised in Alaska by highly supportive parents who loved and encouraged the outdoors. Van Hemert is devoted to them too, touched they’d think nothing of driving 1,000 miles north to deliver and exchange supplies. Care packages always included much-needed food that was never enough and, except for calorie-laden treats they devoured on the spot, quite dissatisfying (dehydrated and dry food) to reduce the heavy loads strapped on their backs. Imagine how many calories expended in a day! Many times nourishment ran seriously low, one time the author so starved she could barely move. A couple of times the two were saved by “Arctic hospitality,” generous strangers they met in sparsely populated, remote villages or tiny outposts.

While the birds are lovely to read about, it’s the bears that give most pause. They encountered 47 bears; only one was so aggressive they’re lucky to be alive.

Perhaps more impressive was witnessing herds of porcupine caribou crossing waters, “one of the last great migrations of large mammals on earth.”

Dean Biggins (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), via Wikimedia Commons

Also unforgettable was the first 1,200 miles of their trip paddling in over-sized, sleek yet 100-pound, 18-foot rowboats. They were sailors, kayakers, canoers used to staying close to each other; these oars were too long to permit that. Sometimes they rowed without seeing the other – daunting aloneness when dealt with unpredictable, fiercely raging Spring weather when they left from Bellingham, Washington. We’re talking six foot waves, “rowing in the dark through the biggest tide of the decade.”

Those images bring to mind another indelible scene: paddling amongst 40-ton humpback whales breeching.

And yet, when a goat falls off a mountain and recovers gracefully, reminding the author to relish not fear the beauty engulfing them, that graceful goat serves as a symbol of wondrous, fleeting moments. That some of “the most precious things in life are those that don’t last forever.”

Above all those vivid scenes, the climate change message we mustn’t forget. Given the threat to endangered species the Trump Administration endorses, so utterly contrary to grave scientific global warming predictions, observing musk oxen return to the Arctic having vanished after 90,000 years on earth is an encouraging sign that maybe it’s not too late, yet.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons

The “entire Arctic Marine ecosystem is in peril,” the author writes, evidenced by paddling alongside gigantic ice floes broken off from what used to be “land of persistent ice,” and discovering the relics of creatures lost to the climate’s warming. “Bleached white bones are everywhere as if an entire museum collection had been emptied onto the beach.” The prose ought to alarm. Species are endangered because our environment is endangered.

You don’t have to go to such extremes traveling to the “land of extremes” to believe this. (Colorful, glossy photographs tucked inside show how extreme. The very last picture is a spoiler, so suggest you finish then peruse.) Still, we should applaud two brave people who went to extremes, now warning those who’ve gone to extremes to deny climate change is upon us.

Lorraine

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The DNA of You and Me 2

Double pressures – Genetics research and romance in a lab (Manhattan, contemporary times): Plenty of fiction evokes a strong sense of time and place, but we don’t often come across fiction strongly-scented about our sense of smell. Andrea Rothman is perfect for dreaming up a story about genetics researchers seeking the genes responsible for olfaction because she once was one.

Richman’s debut novel is as fresh and smart as the cutting-edge research going on at a genetics lab where she used to work (The Rockefeller University). Her invented lab – American University of Science Research (AUSR) – and the real one are located along Manhattan’s East River, where the city is developing a major Life Sciences Corridor. The author was a postdoctoral fellow researching the “oddball” set of genes responsible for our sense of smell – the scientific plot of The DNA of You and Me. There’s some other DNA also strongly-flavoring the prose involving the chemistry of romance between two geneticists – Emily and Aeden.

For a novel with a scientific theme, fiction readers need a writer who can disarm non-scientists to make the science accessible. We also need a hook we can all relate to by a writer who can charm us with an engaging plot and pleasing prose. Richman proves she has a literary knack for doing both, translating technical science into layman’s terms ever so gently while entangling it with provocative prose on contemporary issues. Taken together, the novel achieves a double effect: gaining a better appreciation of the importance of a sense we may take for granted, and stirring us to think about what matters most to us in life in terms of our goals, values, and ethical principles.

Double Helix via Pixabay

The double helix is a term that refers to the shape of DNA, defined as two strands likened to twisted ladders or staircases. The novel is about the tension between two strands – professional versus personal – both of which twist and turn. This twisting is seen in the sketches of DNA twisted ladders that introduce the novel’s five parts.

This image doesn’t do justice to the complexity of what’s involved in identifying “how the olfactory nerves, hundreds of thousands possessing different odorant receptor types, ultimately reached their targets, allowing us to smell.” The plot and characters center around trying to figure out how that complicated genetics and neuroscience works.

Emily met Justin at a conference in Chicago, where she grew up and was finishing her graduate studies, having already distinguished herself with science journal worthy publication of her clinical cancer findings. Boldly she told him she was “born to” discover the rare olfactory genes. So at twenty-eight he hired her to do just that. Once on board, Justin (forty) saw his younger self: “so single-minded and ambitious, so alone.”

Justin’s judgment of Emily was spot-on. It drives the plot and the serious questions raised. Can a woman like Emily, with her set-in-stone career aspirations and asocial personality (“human company is overrated”) ever be happy with anyone? Is she fated to be alone? What if someone comes along and could be the right person for her, would she be willing to compromise her single-minded professional dedication? How deeply conflicted and risky would that decision be, when Emily cannot even “figure out how to be happy”? Friendless all her life, she really doesn’t know “there’s a purpose to being around other people.” Richman has created a character as odd as the mysterious genes.

Enter Aeden, a postdoctoral fellow Emily meets on day one of her new job, the same day she’s landed in New York. “Men rarely noticed me,” she says, though her fiery red hair would seem to negate that perception. In fact, Aeden does notice her but for the wrong reason.

Aiden begrudges her because he (and lab partner Allegra) have been working for three years on a project similar to the one Justin hired her for. They knew this but Justin never told Emily. Was this ethical, pitting colleagues against each other? Emily tells Justin if he’d told her she never would have accepted the job. Emily knows something about the fierce competition in science labs.

In weighing this ethical question (in a novel that evokes many), we need to factor in that Aeden and Allegra are using traditional lab techniques while Emily is using computers to analyze genetics, a field known as bioinformatics. Justin still should have told her, don’t you think? But all Justin cares about is the race to the top.

Emily and Aeden get off to a very bad start and stay entrenched for a long time. Between Emily’s anti-social personality, Aeden’s resentfulness, and their mutual intensity they’re an unlikely pair. Theirs is a slow-to-develop, difficult relationship analogous to the slow pace of complex science research. The novel, though, moves easily, briskly.

Science tells us something about human beings so look for double meanings. Start with the novel’s cleverly titled five parts: Part 1, The Wrong Genes, cluing us in on failed research and mismatched colleagues. Part II, A Bridge, applies to DNA structure as well as finding a bridge to allow any relationship to foster between the two central characters. Part III, Recombination, is a genetics term and a way to describe the changing nature of Emily’s and Aeden’s relationship. Part IV, Chimera, also from genetics, describes Emily’s romantic crossroads. Fantasy or not?

Emily spent her childhood indoors due to an allergy to the smell of grass, shutting herself off from people, setting a lonely pattern for her future. Her interest in olfactory research was inspired by an allergic condition, but it was also influenced by her father’s work in a chemistry lab.

Actually, there’s a more profound origin for Emily’s solitary preferences despite her saying “for no apparent reason, I didn’t like people very much, and did not care to be around them.” Abandoned by her mother when she was a baby, it’s no wonder she doesn’t trust people and has only been attached to the father who raised her on his own. When the novel opens, he’s already passed away.

No wonder too that Emily finds comfort in an hermetically sealed profession, enabling and rewarding her for cutting herself off from the outside world. Occasionally, she steps out and into it. When she does, nature fills the prose, giving Emily and us a jolt as to what it might feel like cooped up in a lab for crazy long hours, day and/or night. Experiments are timed; ambition has no time limits.

The prose also exudes smells, as Emily is hypersensitive to them. Examples include the “buttery odor” of shampoo, “nicotine on his breath,” the “sea-breeze odor of his T-shirt,” the “rotting fish” odor of a “neuron-staining solution,” and the “mild stench” of the East River. All make the point that smells are tied to memories, good and bad.

Emily is 40 when Chapter 1 opens, looking back on 12 years earlier when she worked in Justin’s lab. So while we think we know the ending told in the early pages – she receives the prestigious Lasker award for her “contribution to neuroscience” – as we get into her backstory we realize we have no idea until the end whether she and Aeden reach the target of coming together, mirroring the quest to reaching the targets to explain how we smell.

Emily is an unusual woman whose scent will linger.

Lorraine

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All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf 4

An elegant memoir of the unbreakable bond between a daughter and her father using literary scholarship (Rhode Island, Boston, also England, Australia; roughly 1980s to present-day): There are many ways to describe this heartbreaker of a memoir about an only child who loses her beloved yet enigmatic, alcoholic father.

Katharine Smyth misses her father terribly, yearns to better understand him, which means reconciling conflicted memories of him. She wants to see him in the best light – Light a constant thread – not through a child’s adoring eyes (“a child [who] danced on the top of his feet”), but as an adult often disappointed and disgusted by his “recklessness.”

Smyth’s father remains nameless until the acknowledgements, a nod to the mystery of him. He died at 55 to cancer, hastened (if not brought on) by self-destructive behaviors. Truth is, and Smyth writes candidly, she’d been losing him many years before.

How can someone go from “the most gentle and loving being” to an unrecognizable “brutish stranger”? Be so “anti-life” yet “hold such life within”? What happened to the man who seemed happy when they sailed and swam together? Once so energetic, so full of life, then so full of “exhaustion and sourness.” If, as the author concludes, he was “born an alcoholic,” was he ever truly happy? Happy enough? What was the meaning of his life?

Smyth has been struggling with these complicated questions for at least the past ten years, which is how long she says she’s been writing about him. Seems much longer, going back to when she was eleven when she started a diary. Even with all those years of reflections, her impressions of him keep shape-shifting. Understandable, as he was complex, a nasty drunk, and her mother was private and distant, silent and absent during all those troubling years.

This testament to a daughter’s unbreakable attachment to and love for her father is profound. Her teenage years were emotional roller coasters as she (and her mother) walked on eggshells, so erratic and unpredictable was he. Yet she, not her mother, was his primary caretaker (minus the years she was sent to boarding school, a godsend). Not a slight matter as her father underwent frequent cancer treatments, sometimes every three months, in and out of hospitals. When the disease spread, his last hospitalization was lengthy, torturous. “How can people be asked to endure this?” asks the daughter who never left her father’s side.

Smyth seeks existential answers from Virginia Woolf, her literary idol, who counsels “life is infinitely beautiful yet repulsive.” As the subtitle suggests, the author applies Woolf’s early 20th century inner thoughts (from letters, essays, diaries) and fiction to 21st century loneliness and grief to enlighten her. Perhaps Woolf is right: you can never truly know someone. But the beautiful thing about the author’s impressive effort is not wanting to accept the darker view. In elegant prose, she strives to find the light.

Where better than in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which as far as the author is concerned “tells the story of everything.” This is the book she holds dear above all books. (“Perhaps there is one book for every life.”) Even if you haven’t read it or remember it, the author shows how relatable it is to her life starting with a favored parent (the mother, Mrs. Ramsey) at the heart of a family and a marriage.

Woolf spent her childhood in a house by the sea and the light (“the purest ecstasy I can conceive”) in Cornwall, England with a view of the Godrevy Lighthouse, where she summered as a child. (Fictionally, she moved the house, sea, and light to the Isle of Skye in Scotland.)

Godrevy lighthouse from St. Ives
Photo by Steve Fareham via Geograph

Virginia Woolf’s real and fictionalized homes remind the author of an 1890s house with a waterfront deck in Rhode Island she spent happy summers. The Cornwall home was “the most important of all memories,” wrote Woolf. True for Smyth and once upon a time for her father.

The author knows Virginia Woolf intimately; she’s the subject of her master’s thesis. (Her father was also from England; the author studied at Oxford and fondly recollects those days.) Other Woolf writings (and biographer analyses) are sometimes blended in, all often within the same paragraph. Stylistically, the memoir reflects some of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness modernism, including use of Woolf’s bracketed parenthetical thoughts. So there’s plenty of literary food for thought.

We can also examine the memoir psychologically, as this is a sad story about what happens to a person’s psyche when they become unemployed and it drags on and on. The author’s father never really made a comeback from a creatively satisfying architectural career (her mother also an architect) when he lost that job to the recession in the ‘80s. A tragic example of how job loss can spiral downward triggering heavy, constant drinking (and smoking).

Another psychological factor is the extent to which the “unique psychology of sickness” (Woolf’s prophetic words, having committed suicide) fueled her father’s depression and alcoholism, a toxic mix coupled with the psychological damage caused by joblessness.

Alcoholism affects the whole family. The memoir, then, is a window into the perniciousness of alcoholism victimizing a family, eating away at a marriage. (Though theirs didn’t end in divorce, a topic of consternation since the author’s marriage dissolved after four years.). The family goes on, but not without considerable sacrifices. “Marriage is a loss, a sacrifice of self and its expression,” says the author reflecting Woolf’s feminism.

All the Lives We Ever Lived raises many provocative issues, including a different perspective to consider only children other than the typical stereotype of spoiled brats.

The question of whether a child loves their father or mother more comes up. Let’s accept the question is a universal one owing to human nature and circumstances. The question that’s not universal is why an only child might have a more intense obsession for one parent over another? Adoration so acute and vital it becomes wrapped up in a fear life will become unbearable when that parent dies.

Only children like the author may carry a melancholy “sense of envy” of larger families, a kind of grief on its own for not being part of the “happy chaos of siblings” as seen in Woolf’s Ramsey family. Feelings of existential longing are practical too: not having a sister or a brother to comfort you, especially when you have to carry the burden of a dysfunctional family. Fiction, then, is not just for entertainment, escape, but to gain insight into ourselves by letting us inside how others live, act, and think.

The author also does us a service when she’s hit by how different her emotions are from societal expectations of grieving. She describes grief as “dreaminess,” “alienation,” “fogginess,” “formlessness.” But what she discovers is that for her it’s not the non-stop crying and falling-apart she dreaded for so many precious years.

Most remarkable is the lack of bitterness in the prose. Perhaps, in part, because the author’s idol shunned “sentimentality.” But we need to let Smyth shine here all on her own, admire her optimism to find her father’s lost light – “that astonishing light” – not just for the memory of him but for herself.

Tenderly and compassionately the author writes about wildlife by the water – great blue herons and swan egrets and creatures of the sea like starfish, oysters, horseshoe crabs. Poignantly observing species disappearing year after year, the prose cries out on climate change and how much Nature nourishes our well-being.

Ironically, in writing to better know her father, the author found a brighter light for her mother, for whom she dedicates her eloquent memoir to.

Lorraine

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The Huntress

Will justice triumph over evil? (Soviet Union, Poland, Austria, Germany, and Boston 1937 – 1950; 1959 epilogue): Confession:The Huntress took me out of my comfort zone, but I could not put it down. Superbly crafted and thrilling, yet uncomfortably up-close to the evil perpetrated by Nazis. Kate Quinn’s point: we must never forget.

Consider these chilling facts. The plot – about a fictional female Nazi war criminal being hunted down – combines aspects of two real Holocaust killers. One caught in Queens, New York where I grew up. The other murdered six innocent Jewish children, heinous cold-blooded cruelty that netted her the name Die Jägerin, which means the huntress.

Three characters in the novel do the hunting. Ian, a well-known British war correspondent, and his sidekick Tony, a Jewish-American from Queens. Nina from Siberia joined the team after navigating and flying Soviet bomber planes to defend The Motherland when Germany invaded her country. All in their thirties, all with deep personal anger to hunt down Nazi war criminals with a “hunger so vast it could have swallowed the world.” Their obsession reflected in intense prose that brings history intensely alive.

Yet this is still fiction, so the reader doesn’t know whether the huntress will be found and captured, especially after the Nuremberg trials when the world wanted to move on. Consider another chilling fact: dozens of Nazi war criminals are estimated to still be alive, perhaps hiding out right before our eyes.

Alarming and morally disturbing facts that are powerfully timely as anti-Semitism has dramatically resurged in the US and around the globe. The Anti-Defamation League reported that in just one year (2016-2017) the US jump – the largest jump in two decades – approached 60%.

Also eerily timed is the novel’s depiction of America in the fifties preoccupied with Communists not Nazis. Given today we’re in the throes of Russian investigations rightfully aimed at saving our democracy, the novel warns we must not be so overwhelmed with one enemy that we don’t pay enough attention to other dangers.

The existential writer Franz Kafka was recently quoted in the article What Books are the Most Shocking and Disturbing? as saying “if the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” I imagine he’d be giving the author a standing ovation, if alive today.

Still, it takes a masterly writer to keep hitting us in the gut over 560 pages and we don’t put the book down. We can’t because it’s action-packed, racing back and forth over time and many places, blending WWII atrocities and realities with a post-WWII hunt that feels like everything is happening at once. Time and place are structured so questions you may have about events that occurred during one time period are addressed in another in the chapter that follows. And this pace is delivered through the voices of six characters whose alternating stories are all interesting to the end.

The two other main characters who make up the six cited above (the huntress plus the hunting team) live in Boston where the hunt is set and tracked month by month. They are sensitive, seventeen-year-old budding photographer Jordan, and her mysterious new stepmother Anneliese, an Austrian widow from the war. That’s four compelling female characters who overpower the men, striking a feminist theme about powerful women who make consequential choices. Only two, though, are good and courageous. Of the other two, one is absolutely abominable while the other might be too.

How difficult and exhausting was all of this to put together? Perhaps if I’d read Quinn’s bestselling 2017 female spy novel, The Alice Network (on my TBR list for sure), the answer would be clearer. So much historical research must have gone into developing a novel that spans so many countries including the Soviet Union’s Siberia, Moscow, Engels, and Northern Caucasus region. How hard was it to transform WWII flying adventure movie-like scenes into blow-by-blow, high-wire prose? The image of Nina and her partner in the cockpit of the Soviet fighter biplane Polikarpov U-2 as vivid as watching on the screen.

Dialogue is plentiful and key to visceral reactions. Sometimes it moves so briskly we can’t read fast enough. Sometimes because we’re caught off guard, as it’s laced with Nina’s crude Russian slang (shocking to even Ian whose “chased two wars across the globe”); Polish and German words, translated or not; offensive ethnic slurs toward many nationalities and identities; and numerous unfamiliar historical references. The gritty language helps us feel the rage and bewilderment of a weary, battered world. A world where too many wanted the horrors of the past to stay in the past. Some, of course, could not. We cheer their bravery and moral convictions.

Ian’s founding of a documentation center to track Holocaust criminals reminds us of Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal’s renowned work, but it’s actually another survivor and war hunter, Fritz Bauer, the author tells us in her fascinating notes who inspired Ian’s doggedness. Most of the fictional characters are drawn from historical figures.

For a blog called enchanted prose it must be said that The Huntress is by no means enchanted as in charming. Rather, it’s bewitched in the sense that Quinn has cast a spell over us.

In fact, witches are everywhere, most notably in mythology about water. Nina grew up in a witch-like place by the mystical Lake Ruselka, “the world’s deepest lake at the world’s furthest end,” haunted by an evil fable about lake witches. Her brutal childhood indelibly scarred by this icy blue body of water that matches the huntress’ icy blue eyes. Water is the only thing she fears. Flying, the furthest away she can get from the sea, becomes her passion, her salvation. Nina’s WWII flying story historically represents the first group of female aviators in the war, outperforming the men. Known as Night Witches, they flew at night.

A lot about “wolverine-mad,” razor-toting Nina’s otherworldly toughness will make you cringe, but she also has the capacity to love, can be fiercely loyal, and is incredibly fearless in the skies, modeling herself on her Soviet idol, famous aviatrix Marina Raskova.

Marina Raskova
Scanned by Dmitry Ivanov. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two more lakes are featured. One in Poland where the Nazi witch being hunted did her destruction; the other outside Boston where an ugly accident (?) occurs.

To be fair, Tony’s role is to be a charmer so he can butter up witnesses to get them to talk. He also charms Jordan McBride, the observant photographer and daughter of a widowed father who owns an antiques shop in Boston.

The McBride story kicks off the plot. Chapter 1 opens with Jordan discovering she’ll soon have a stepmother (Anneliese) who does everything to assimilate including changing her name to Anna. Jordan’s quick to snap a picture of her, revealing a coldness only she sees through her lens. Some other things happen early on that lead Jordan to believe “this woman is hiding something.” Suspicions about Anna’s truthfulness burn through Jordan’s story as she grows to love her stepmother. Tormented, she wonders if she’s jealous of the woman who took away her father’s attention. Then again “cameras don’t lie.” Either way, Jordan’s instincts are admirably protective of her new little stepsister Ruth, picking up on how sad a child she is. She wonders why.

Jordan’s character touches us. Her evolving relationship with Tony, and a wagging tail dog sweeten the pot but these cannot compete with the darkness.

An epilogue wraps things up, but we’ll never be able to wrap our heads around the inhumanity. Something even the finest research and writing can’t possibly find the words for.

Lorraine

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The Secret of Clouds

Hearts full of love and a weak heart (Long Island, NY 1999 to some years later; Kiev, Ukraine 1986 backstory): “A good book can transform souls,” says Maggie Topper, our bright-eyed, twenty-six-year-old narrator excited to embark on a new career teaching sixth grade English at a middle school on the northern shore of Long Island (same region the author lives.) If Maggie is right – as readers who can’t live without books would agree – then The Secret of Clouds has a big-hearted, life-affirming soul about a special teacher and a special student transforming each other’s lives. Buoyed by a big-hearted cast of characters, this is a feel-good yet poignant novel sprinkled with tug-at-your-heart student writings shared with a teacher they trust.

Authors frequently preface their novels with a quote (or two). Sometimes it captures the essence of the book, often not or the meaning obscure. Alyson Richman, known for her historical fiction novels, introduces her first contemporary one with a single line by Zelda Fitzgerald that may be the best at summing up a novel:

Yuri Krasny is one of Maggie’s students. Yuri may be turning twelve but he’s an “old soul” with a “most generous heart.” Maggie’s principal asked her to tutor him at his home as it’s too risky for him to go to school. Born with a “weak heart . . . but his mind had no limits. It could still be filled with dreams.” Enter Maggie, a teacher who finds “light in the darkness,” who sees Yuri’s “spark,” that light. The novel opens with Maggie’s lyrical description of Yuri as the child:

“You sense is extraordinary, is the one who returns everything you give and more … your beacon as every word you utter in the classroom suddenly has a destination. It’s as if you are teaching to the light.”

Yuri is mature beyond his years because his protected life is surrounded by adults: stay-at-home mom Katya and molecular biologist father Sasha who works at Stony Brook University, where Brookhaven National Lab is located. Which is to say Sasha knows painfully well the science behind Yuri’s illness. Though Yuri is blessed with extremely devoted parents, he’s extremely unlucky to have a genetic condition preventing him from living a normal childhood, from living his dreams.

Richman, still very much the writer drawn to the historical past, skillfully weaves Yuri’s parents’ backstories into the plot: Katya was a former Russian-trained ballerina in the Kiev ballet corps (today also called The National Ballet of Ukraine, considered “one of the world’s greatest ballet schools”). Graceful and thin, “weightless, as if she had harnessed the wind,” her motherly love and suffering for her sickly child is reflected in graceful prose. Sasha is Jewish. Choosing 1986 to tell their Ukrainian stories comes at a time when Gorbachev “announced those with Jewish ancestry” could leave their country. In an unusually candid statement coming from a Soviet leader, he admitted “Jews had been widely prosecuted.” Katya was only nineteen when she married adoring Sasha. She hadn’t realized how widespread anti-Semitism was until they met – Sasha’s reason to emigrate. Katya sustained an injury that ended her dancing dreams, so when the opportune time came the two left their homeland. Historically, 1986 also marks the date of the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, alluded to from the start in the Prologue.

In America, Katya is the epitome of a sleep-deprived mother living and breathing every moment worrying about her baby, now at a tender age, “such a beautiful yet fleeting time” Maggie reminds those of us who have children.

Mother and son are terribly isolated. This is a family living on the edge, so everyday is precious to them, everyday grateful for what they have.

When Maggie is let into this loving family, her life changes. While she’s laser-focused on inspirational lessons she can gift Yuri, it’s Yuri (and his parents) who gives her the greatest gift of all: a deep personal connection to the fragility and preciousness of life.

Maggie’s lessons are powerful messages too. Creatively, she comes up with meaningful reading and writing assignments matched to Yuri’s (and his classmates) interests and needs. For instance, she picks sports stories to appeal to the boys like Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella that inspired The Field of Dreams baseball movie with Kevin Costner we all loved. First, though, she must figure out how to connect with the pale boy slumped in his living room chair. Once she learns his passion is baseball, Maggie and Yuri begin to see the light.

Richman teaches us too, again drawing on history. In 1981, Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University educator, pioneered the method of combining the teaching of writing with the teaching of reading. Maggie, by the way, graduated from Columbia Teachers College.

Maggie is the teacher you never forget. A romantic soul, soothed by the fairy-tale cottage she rents in a rural enclave that’s “more like New England than the fancier towns closer to Manhattan.” She’s close to her parents who live nearby. Her mother loves to cook mouthwatering meals, recipes passed down from the Sicilian old country. (Katya’s home is also filled with savoring smells, meals nostalgic of Ukraine.) “Food is love.” Maggie’s retired father is now living out his dream of making violins in the basement of her childhood home.

Other heart-warming characters who bring something special for Maggie and the reader are her school colleagues: art teacher Suzie, Maggie’s best friend, the one we’re all grateful to have or wish we had. A colorful ball of fire and counselor-in-chief ready to drop everything when Maggie needs her; substitute music teacher Daniel who just so happens to treasure beautifully-crafted violins like the ones Maggie’s father makes. With his green velvet jacket, “poetic soul,” charm, and old-fashioned manners he seems more out of the 19th century literary world than the 21st; and Florence, an older teacher who decorates her classroom every year with butterflies, giving the impression she’s lost her passion until Maggie discovers there’s a heartbreaking reason.

“Baseball banter” fills the pages when Maggie and Yuri are together. He’s an avid Yankees fan, like his dad; Maggie roots for the Mets, like her brother. When Maggie asks Yuri why he loves baseball so much, his answers show how wise and intelligent he is:

“Everything about it is unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen . . . “the math of baseball is always changing” . . . “baseball is like live math” . . . “you can always change the stakes every time you’re up at bat.”

Author notes at the end of historical novels that inform us what’s fiction versus fact are favored. Richman knows this, doesn’t disappoint when she turns her sights on the contemporary. In a Reader’s Guide interview included in the novel, she explains the personal inspiration for her characters’ passions and Maggie’s teaching ideas such as: her son loves baseball, which accounts for why she writes like a sports columnist, and all her novels feature something artistic because her mother is a painter. In this novel, it’s the violin that both her husband and daughter play.

Sasha also speaks of butterflies. Butterflies having to do with the physics of chaos theory. The “butterfly effect” also beautifully summarizes the novel’s soul: how one small action can make a big difference.

There’s a secret in the clouds but there’s no secret that one person can make a big difference. Or, in this touching, heart-filled novel, the light beams on two.

Lorraine

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